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3 Running Backs Who Are Supremely Undervalued in PPR Leagues

Over at Pro Football Focus I took a look at a running back’s involvement in the passing game on a team and individual level. Using the snap and target data, I created a few different metrics of my own to better gauge how often a player is targeted, how many yards they rack up per target, their total target percentage in relation to the offense, and more.

I will be pulling stats from that piece using abbreviations to describe some of the metrics I charted. For reference, you can find a key and both charts here.

I touched on some general observations for each team in the NFC in that piece, but there’s still more to explore within the data. In this piece I use that data along with everything else we have at our disposal at RotoViz to pinpoint three running backs who are undervalued in PPR leagues and should remain that way based on the discrepancy in their ADP.

*All ADP data is pulled from FantasyFootballCalculator.com and all 2013 PPR scoring results are pulled from MyFantasyLeague.com

Dexter McCluster

I’ll start this list with a player who isn’t consistently being drafted enough to make FantasyFootballCalcuator’s ADP list. Look no further than Dexter McCluster. To find any semblance of ADP, I ventured to MFL where he currently holds an ADP of RB72 and 242nd overall in PPR. I will toss aside the group think and boldly state now that McCluster is the 2014 version of Danny Woodhead. Woodhead is the guy who finished 2013 as the RB13 in PPR thanks in part to his 76 receptions on 83 targets.

In 2013, only three other running backs saw more targets than Woodhead, despite the fact that he played in over 50 percent of his team’s snaps in just two games all season. His offensive coordinator, Ken Whisenunt, was the mad genius behind this—he is now head coach of the Titans. Whisenhunt targeted his running backs 122 times with a TTP (total target percentage) of 22.43 percent—good for seventh highest in the NFL. Chargers backs landed in the top five in TPRR (targets per route run), YPRR (yards per route run), and YPT (yards per target) as well. So why can’t McCluster fill that role in the Titans’ reinvented offense?

Some question McCluster’s durability and experience at running back. However, in his breakout season, Woodhead combined his 76 catches with 106 rushes to finish with 182 total touches. Back in 2011, McCluster combined 114 carries with 46 catches to finish with 160 total touches. Back in 2011, he took those 114 carries for 516 yards while averaging a respectable 4.5 yards-per-carry. Those concerns seem unwarranted to me.

Whisenhunt has already said that he sees McCluster as more of a running back than wide receiver, so I expect him to get every opportunity in camp to assume the Woodhead role. This is important because it will put him in a position to receive more targets than he has in his past two seasons as a slot wide receiver. Over the past two seasons, McCluster has finished with 76 and 70 targets, respectively.

Whisenhunt is not the only Titan who sees untapped potential in McCluster. His new teammate and veteran Nate Washington offered high praise and hinted at some potential play designs when talking about watching McCluster during OTAs.

“Amazing. I’ve seen his feet. I’ve seen his quickness. I think he’s going to bring some true playmaking ability to not only our run game, but our pass game,” Washington said. “I’m pretty sure coach (Ken) Whisenhunt has some tricks up his sleeve to put him in some positions and make some plays.”

McCluster has better quickness, strength and explosion than given credit for—at the 2010 NFL Combine he ran a 20 yard shuttle of 4.06, threw up 20 bench press reps, and logged a 37.5-inch vertical. In addition to the one year he was given rushing opportunities, he has succeeded as a receiver improving on his receptions, yards, and yards-per-catch over the last three seasons.

Despite any evidence to persuade otherwise, most have already written off McCluster’s career. He has received almost no buzz at all in fantasy circles, as evidenced by his aforementioned ADP. Not everyone has missed the boat though—I clicked through the expert MFL10 that James Todd recapped to find that Sigmund Bloom of FootballGuys shares my optimism and drafted McCluster 158th overall.

I’m not saying McCluster will finish as the RB13 like Woodhead, but even if you only give him three of the eight touchdowns Woodhead scored with similar reception and yard totals, he would finish as the RB18. Somewhere in the high-end RB3 range seems most probable to me, though I wouldn’t be surprised to see him sneak into the RB2 range. At his current ADP, he is the back I want to own the most shares of in PPR leagues.

Lance Dunbar

It has become clear to me that I can’t go a week without writing or tweeting about Lance Dunbar’s potential in 2014. I’m not alone—Dunbar made Shawn Siegele’s top sleeper list back in January. My research on RB usage in the passing game further cemented my stance on Dunbar. Even with all of what’s been written on Dunbar, he remains a value in PPR leagues at his current ADP of RB49.

With Scott Linehan on board as offensive coordinator, the “Linehan Effect,” as Pat Thorman describes it, will be in full display. Only two teams had a higher TTP (total target percentage) to their running backs than the Lions in 2013, and for comparison sake, Lion backs received 54 more targets and ran 234 more SIR (snaps in route) than the Cowboys in 2014.

As it more specifically relates to Dunbar, Linehan utilizes a two back system—last season Joique Bell received a TTP 10.09 percent and Reggie Bush received a TTP 11.99 percent. They finished with 64 and 76 targets, respectively—a number that Bell was able to accrue despite being on the field for over 50 percent of his team’s offensive snaps in just five games.

Linehan’s affliction for targeting his running backs and utilizing a two back system is not a new phenomenon either. Research conducted by Rich Hribar shows that running backs caught 47 percent of all receptions in Detroit under Linehan and the RB2 has averaged 40 targets in the past seven years attached to his play calling.

From live action, it’s easy to see the lateral agility and explosion that Dunbar possesses, and the numbers back this up. He had 37 total touches last season, but turned them into 209 total yards. Per PFF, he finished with the sixth-best yards after contact per attempt (3.77) and the fifth-best elusive rating (112.0). He forced 11 missed tackles, averaging just less than one on every three touches.

Dunbar’s effectiveness as a runner will be accentuated by his offensive line. The Cowboys finished 2013 as PFF’s third-best run-blocking team and they return all of the major components to their success. They also added first-round offensive lineman Zack Martin, who most considered one of the most NFL-ready prospects—he should step in the starting lineup at guard right away.

Dunbar is more likely to finish in the high-end RB3/low-end RB2 range than at his current ADP. There is still value to be had here. Grab it before it’s too late.

Trent Richardson

On a general level, players like Trent Richardson don’t usually project to be great value. Although a lot of what we’ve seen on film turns us away, his name alone is built into his ADP. For this reason, many experts shy away from drafting him at all, and this can sometimes lead to a draft slide in the more informed leagues. These are the leagues you are most likely to play in, so this is where you can take advantage.

Richardson will head into training camp as the starter, and so far he has responded well by eating right and looking more natural and instinctive during OTAs. Richardson has a great chance to become one of the few three down backs in 2014.

Dating back to his days coaching at Stanford, Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton has preferred to rely on one running back. In his first year with the Colts, he attempted to implement a similar style at first. Vick Ballard opened the season playing 72 percent of his team’s snaps in Week 1 before going down to injury, and the next week, Ahmad Bradshaw saw 68 percent of the snaps. When the team traded for Richardson, he attempted something similar using Richardson on 72 and 73 percent of the snaps in Weeks 4 and 5. However, the mid-season trade proved too overwhelming for Richardson from a timing and playbook perspective, and Hamilton was forced to use a RBBC with only two games where one back totaled at least 70 percent of the snaps over the remainder of the season.

There are reasons to believe that an offseason with the team will result in Richardson claiming this role. Earlier this offseason Fantasy Gumshoe discussed Richardson’s agility concerns and pre-contact ineffectiveness during his tenure with the Browns, but Max Mulitz points to Richardson’s elite tackle-breaking ability and what that means for future yards after contact.

Richardson’s ability to create missed tackles in the passing game is what caught my attention. On just 28 receptions in 2013, he forced 16-missed tackles. Only six running backs forced more, and they combined to average 67.5 receptions. No back came close to forcing more missed tackles per each reception.

Despite showing well as a receiver, Richardson was only used on 209 SIR (snaps in route), and his 39 total targets amounted to a TTP of just 6.70 percent. 30 running backs ran more SIR and 29 finished with a higher TTP. As a team, the Colts finished with 102 targets and a 17.53 percent TTP to their running backs in 2013. As a lead back in this offense, we can conservatively expect his TTP to rise to 10 percent. I will take it a step further and predict that he sees his targets double in 2014.

Richardson has a current ADP of RB24 in PPR leagues. If he is able to keep the lead back role, the sky is the limit for Richardson. He plays in an offense that The Fantasy Douche expects to improve and attempt more passes, and three down backs that catch passes tend to finish very high in PPR leagues—in a similar role, DeMarco Murray finished as the RB6 in 2013.

Dan Schneier writes for PFF Fantasy, FOX Sports, RotoVizSportable. You can continue to the conversation with him on twitter  @DanSchneier_NFL or google+.

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